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Contemporary authors are influenced by those who preceded them in terms of both the form and content of their works. This is evident in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. McCarthy chooses not to imitate those greats that came before him such as Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Tennyson in terms of form; in fact, he deliberately avoids almost all conventional choices in terms of form. However, he is obviously influenced by their ideas. He ties together Wordsworth's concern at his society losing touch with nature and Tennyson's exploration of what a society's priorities should be. He creates a world in which civilization has dissolved and the ecosystem is in chaos. It is implied that the society has lost touch with nature and this has resulted in the death of global civilization. His goal seems to be to awaken the world to the impact that humans have had on the environment and how that can or perhaps will be the source of our downfall.
This concern is comparable to the fears of many in the environmental movement that humanity is destroying the natural world and unless drastic changes are made now, this degradation will be permanent. Many prominent politicians in the United States, such as Al Gore, author of An Inconvenient Truth, include environmental responsibility as a core aspect of their political platform. Indeed, in Europe there are many parties whose only focus is environmentally responsible legislation. The Green Party United States of America believes that capitalism's focus on profit rewards disposable products which are not ecologically sustainable and the focus on personal gain precludes any efforts to make a societal change for the betterment of the earth (Ten Key Values).
The Road is a novel which is significant in that it calculatingly eschews traditional poetic forms such as those utilized by Wordsworth and Tennyson and instead is in an arrangement that is more commonly read today. However, McCarthy has taken this form and made it his own. It is not divided into chapters but small paragraphs that each describes a separate incident. The story is narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator that rarely indicates which of the main characters is speaking. These elements combine to give it an unusual terseness that highlights the drudgery and horrors of life on the road. The choice of a novel as his form was a deliberate move on the part of McCarthy as his audience would be much larger for a novel than for poetry. This larger audience therefore can have a greater impact on society and its behaviors.
The Road is an extended allegory about how humanity should treat the environment and what will happen if they allow it to be damaged. It is evident that humans have destroyed the ecosystem of the world. "On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the roadâ€¦A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and grey and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned"(McCarthy, 8). The devices such as the alliteration of black and burn and the personification of the trees as human corpses emphasize the death that is everywhere. In this desolate world a father and son, who are representative of humanity, try to survive. "They came upon themselves in a mirror and he almost raised the pistol. It's us Papa, the boy whispered. It's us" (McCarthy, 132). They unconsciously recognize themselves as just as much of an enemy as those whom they are trying to avoid, much in the same way that human activity is the earth's worst enemy. They are traveling on a road which doubles as the path that humanity is currently on. Despite this, the father-son duo tries vigorously to maintain their humanity in such difficult conditions. The father tells his son as he is dying, "You have to carry the fire. I don't know how to. Yes you do. Is it real? The fire? Yes it is. Where is it? I don't know where it is? Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it" (McCarthy, 278-279). They are the carriers of the fire which represents humanity's hope for change.
The impact of this lifestyle on the boy and his father is frightening. They are forced to scrounge for canned goods and oil left over from a better time because they are constantly on the brink of starvation. "The country was looted, ransacked, ravaged. Rifled of every crumb. The nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of morning had a terrible silence to it. Like a dawn before battle" (McCarthy, 129). The alliteration of ransacked, ravaged, and rifled combined with the morbid description of night as "casket black" exacerbate the feeling of despair that permeates throughout the novel. Others range the road stealing from the weaker and even resorting to cannibalism. Eventually the father succumbs to illness, leaving the son alone in this harsh world. "He slept close to his father that night and held him but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stiff. He lay there a long time weeping and then he got up and walked out through the woods to the road"(McCarthy, 281). The use of the euphemism "cold and stiff" speaks to how the son has seen so much death he can barely comprehend that of his father. The death of the man also symbolizes a loss of hope in the world because there is one less soul striving to maintain his humanity. McCarthy does provide some hope for the boy and for the world. He encounters a man and woman who have also retained their humanity and lives with them.
McCarthy's parting words hammer home the point of this allegory for those who may have missed it. "Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountainsâ€¦On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again" (McCarthy, 286-287). His point is clear: if the capitalist based societies of the modern world continue to mistreat the earth, then the world will eventually deteriorate to something resembling that which the novel depicts. There will be no hope for redemption if the situation is allowed to get that bad.
The literature of the contemporary, Victorian and Romantic eras demonstrate how they responded to capitalism both in terms of development of thought and of use of literary forms and structures. The ideas of every author are clearly influenced by his predecessors and we can see how the ideas underpinning McCarthy's work were developed by reading the works of earlier Romantic and Victorian poets.
William Wordsworth's Romantic nature poem "The World is Too Much with Us" focuses on how materialism resulting from capitalism causes many individuals to lose out on a source of inspiration and knowledge as a consequence of not communing with nature. Wordsworth says, "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/ little we see in Nature that is ours" (Wordsworth, 2-3). He believes that the rampant capitalism-fed consumerism that is so prevalent in his society detracts from the natural abilities and inclinations of man.
Wordsworth wrote the poem because he longed to live in a simpler time that was more connected to nature and wanted to create this desire within his readers. Wordsworth chose a Petrarchan sonnet as his form because sonnets were traditionally written about romantic love. He is writing about a lost love. The subject of the lost love is not a woman, but Nature. "This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon" (Wordsworth, 5). This is implied by the personification of the sea as a woman. Instead of Nature that deserves love, man has chosen unwisely to love material things. "We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" This metaphor of a foul blessing describes how capitalism may seem beneficial but will really cause rot within a society.
Throughout the first 8 and a half lines of the poem Wordsworth uses the first person plural point of view. He is outlining what he perceives society's priorities to be and the problems with those priorities. He includes himself in the definition of society as evidenced by his usage of we and ours. At line 9 he switches to the first person point of view to outline his alternative option to this capitalistic society in which he is a participant. He exclaims "Great God! I'd rather be/a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn" (Wordsworth, 9-10). In his apostrophe to the Christian God, which emphasizes the depth of his despair, he expresses his longings for paganism because that was a religion that placed heavy emphasis on love of nature. At least then he could see the pagan Gods Proteus and Triton, who are the Greek gods of nature, who he mentions in lines 13 and 14 and there would be a renewed respect for the natural world. "Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;/or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn." (Wordsworth, 13-14) This return to pre-industrial, pre-capitalist times is what Wordsworth is advocating in much of his poetry.
Another work that references the Greeks in an effort to illustrate its point, Tennyson's "Ulysses", addresses the Victorian ideal of imperialism and the constant need that many felt to continually expand the empire. The basis of this drive was free-market capitalism which encouraged economic growth whatever the cost. The simplest way to achieve this growth was by going to foreign lands and exploiting the natural resources available there. Ulysses is pursuing the same policy though his direct motivator is boredom rather than growth. "How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/ to rust unburnished, not to shine in use!" (Tennyson, 22-23) He wants to continue to explore because that will allow him continued usefulness and glory.
It does not place value on being thankful for what one has. "Ulysses" is a dramatic monologue which is noteworthy because it lets us see what Ulysses of Ithaca perceives as important. Though this poem is written about an ancient Greek leader, Tennyson addresses the modern British Empire and its priorities of greater access to markets and natural resources.
There are three stanzas in the poem. In the first and third stanzas, Ulysses speaks about himself and his priorities. In the second stanza he shifts briefly to address his son Telemachus, whom he indicates in a use of metonymy that he is leaving kingdom to. "To whom I leave the scepter and the isle" (Tennyson, 34). This is significant because Ulysses is symbolic of the British leaders and members of society that buy into the capitalistic ideal that constant expansion of the empire in order to have new markets and resources is necessary for prosperity. Telemachus represents those that do not buy into this system. They prefer to perfect what they have rather than discarding it when a better opportunity comes along.
Any dominant ideology will have its critics. Capitalism, with its dominance in the westernized world and growing prominence worldwide is no exception. Ideologies such as capitalism can be traced through literature even if it is rejection of the ideology that is represented. The Road, "The World is Too Much With Us", and "Ulysses" all do so in their own unique but interrelated way.